Saturday, September 24, 2011


We spent a week in Villefranche on the Riviera last year, and liked it and our hotel so much that we returned again, and found the experience even more enjoyable second time around.

The family-run Hotel Versailles, is just a few hundred yards down a hill to the town. It has a bus stop outside - the number 100 runs every 15 minutes to and from Nice and the number 81 cuts into the hinterland - it seems you can go up and down the glorious Cote for €1 a time.

The Hotel Versailles is cut into the cliff face with reception and dining area, as well as bedrooms looking out to the constantly azure bay. We opted for the same room again: number 104 is large, wooden floored with a huge bed and all mod cons. It's expensive but after finishing the first draft of my latest book, it was a glorious and much appreciated luxury.

We woke each morning to a streaky pink sunrise, and wondering if a cruise boat had arrived during the night. This year there were only two during our 6-day stay. Last year there was at least one a day, sometimes three. It'a subtle sign of the recessionary times, as were the number of the small shops in teh town that had ceased trading or were opening for reduced hours.

We breakfasted in hotel - vista across bay is gorgeous as are local cheeses, seasonal fruit - totally divine peaches, nectarines and melons. As we were slap in the middle of a heat wave we spent time at the pool as well as wandering and climbing the narrow streets, which date back to the 14th century when it was peopled by pirates and desired by kings. Once of the sights is the Chapelle de Saint Pierre, once a store for fishermen's nets but since being decorated with ghotly biblical scenes by Jean Cocteau in the 1950s is now a tourist attraction.

If you're wandering around the town a good buy is cotton - shirts, dresses, shorts and trousers in the finest of fine Egyptian cotton. Top quality cotton shirts cost around €49. Markets are held regularly - the market up the town concentrates on foodstuffs: local cheeses, fruit, herbs, breads, whereas the market around the harbour is aimed at capturing the lucrative cruise-ship market, and sells loads of inexpensive but attractive jewelery; leather goods, and general bric-a-brac, but of particular note are the wonderful cotton bags, designed and made by the stall owner who employs 3 people.

The culinary delights of harbour eating lured us each evening, despite the menu up town being considerably cheaper. We watched the sunset change from golden to rose and then streaked violet as we ordered and ate in the warm dusk, watching the ribs ferry in passengers from the privately owned cruisers that anchored a little way out. The girls, all golden and long-limbed put on their heels as they left their little boats.

The tables line the water's edge and each restaurant has its own colour-schemed theme. Travestere serves a bit of everything from fish to pizza but its speciality is a particularly delightful main of veal with creamed mushrooms, as well as pleasant service and good local wines and cheeses.

Commanding an excellent spot on the quay of Villefranche since 1938, la Mère Germaine is part of the fabric of the port The restaurant is haunt of celebrities who roll up in Rolls Royces, Porsches and Lamborginis or are ferried in from their cruisers by the restaurant motor boat. The night we were there a large party dominated with laughter and comraderie, not to mention their unusual taste in dress - trilby hats and tweed capes in the sweltering heat. They departed in two chauffeur-driven Bentleys after being kissed on both cheeks by Monsieur Halap, grandson of Germaine Halap, founder. We chose the set menu at €42 a head: crab cakes/fish soup to start; we both had prawn curry - the best we've ever eaten and finished off with trio of creme brules in coffee, chocolate and natural flavours. Excellent from start to finish.

Les Corsaires, a few steps from the Welcome Hotel, the hotel frequentd by Jean Cocteau, was our only culinary disappointment. The food and service left a lot to be desired: the duck was half raw, although 'well done' was requested; the soup was cold and the service not only abomable but bordering on rudeness.

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